Mar 17

Reflections on the Fair

by Peter Roehrich

Mitchell's New General Atlas

Did you make it to the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair? I hope so. To read an antique book or to study a map from 200 years ago is to travel through time. I’m a map collector and last weekend I traveled through time; while only a few of the Fair exhibitors explicitly advertised that they traded in maps, quite a few dealers had maps and atlases on offer spanning prices from under one hundred dollars to well into the thousands.

My journey began with an atlas published in 1870 by the Government Printing Office to accompany Congressional testimony on the Civil War. The atlas’ red binding indicated it had been published for a government official. As I flipped the pages, I journeyed back to Reconstruction-era America. Looking at view of Ft Sumter in Charleston, SC, where hostilities began, and a map of Bull Run, where the first major combat took place, I saw the Union tear apart. I looked at the ring of earthen fortifications around Washington, DC, and was present when Lincoln visited wearing his distinctive top hat. With this atlas in my hand I held bandages that bound our nation’s wounds.

I explored a massive folding map of Pennsylvania railroads. It must have been four feet by six, backed on linen, folding into a blue leather case of no more than six by eight inches. The Pennsylvania Railroad main line shown in blue where I heard a hissing steam locomotive speed down the track. This was the most exciting map of the show, as it chronicled an invention that changed everything; the railroad meant the country became mobile and smaller. And I can’t forget that railroad expansion meant new land to survey, and from those surveys came more maps.

I held Mitchell’s gorgeously illustrated New General Atlas, an American work published in Philadelphia. Without doubt, Mitchell’s atlases were treasures, transforming late 19th century living rooms to places near, Washington, DC, and far, the African continent. Paging to the Washington, DC plate to see my neighborhood, I felt the same excitement that Victorian readers must have felt as they looked for their cities.

To look at an antiquarian map is to peer into history and to look in a mirror. An antique map documents the world as it was then in geographical terms as well as socially and politically, and beyond that an antique map tells us about our forbearers’ interests. Where a household atlas shows a particular railroad line we can infer the importance of mobility to the readers, that a railroad map shows one town by not another we get a glimpse into the economic weight of those towns, and the troop movements shown on a Civil War map tells us the concern for warfare’s human toll.

Beyond the stunning maps and atlases I saw, the highlight of the Fair was talking with the exhibitors in great two-way conversations. We discussed the softening of the atlas market and a dealer told me about the influence several major collectors had on price. I told him about the fortifications of Washington, DC, and of the account of Lincoln’s visit to Fort Stevens, where he was targeted by Confederate sharpshooters. I discussed the trends in recent map reference books with another book dealer.

I do hope you made it to the Book Fair, whether you attended as an experienced collector, someone testing the waters, or just attended to travel back in time for an hour or two.

Peter is a map collector and author studying comparative views, a type of 19th century map. His book is soon to be released.

You can find Peter on his websiteTwitter and Facebook.




Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. - Tim O’Brian